Democrats For Bloomberg?

Greg Sargent's recent plea for New York Democrats to vote against Michael Bloomberg in November's mayoral election is not only startlingly illogical; it also reflects much of what's wrong with this city's Democratic Party machine -- its insularity, its decrepitude, and, worst of all, its compulsive self-destructiveness.

Like many local party activists, Sargent is puzzled that so many prominent Democrats are campaigning for Bloomberg, the Republican incumbent, instead of their own banner-waver, Fernando Ferrer. The national Democratic establishment, he writes, "doesn't much care that it isn't in charge of America's most populous and visible city."

The lament misses the point. The VIPs' real concern is that they don't want the party to be associated with the hacks and second-raters who are somehow running the local branch. The real puzzler is why the city's Democratic establishment doesn't take the task of governing more seriously.

If Bloomberg is re-elected, New York City will have had GOP mayors for 16 years running. But what does this mean? Have New Yorkers turned Republican as a result? Not at all. We still cast ballots for Democratic presidents, governors, senators, representatives, city-council members -- every public office but mayor -- by vast majorities.

The truth is, neither Bloomberg nor his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, is a Republican by the national party's standards. Both men favor abortion rights, gay rights, immigrants' rights, and gun control. (This is why, despite his ambitions and popularity, Giuliani will never head a GOP presidential ticket.) Bloomberg isn't even really a Republican: Until 2001, he was a registered Democrat, and a liberal one at that; he ran for mayor that year as a Republican strictly to avoid a crowded primary. (Opportunistic? Yes, but shrewd in an inventively New Yorkerish way.) It's quite likely that if he had run in the Democratic primary this year, he would have won handily.

Those who decry the Democrats-for-Bloomberg movement nonetheless admit that Bloomberg has been a surprisingly very good mayor. He's balanced the budget, averted union strikes, improved education (albeit marginally), pushed down the crime rate further (fairly significantly), and repaired much of the damage that Giuliani inflicted on the city's race relations. Giuliani had made New Yorkers doubt -- he wanted them to doubt -- that a big city could be run effectively and inclusively. Not the least of Bloomberg's accomplishments is that he showed that you can do both.

This is what most New Yorkers -- most voters -- want in a modern mayor: a competent manager who protects the city's people and treats them fairly. The problem with the Democrats' mayoral candidates in recent years is that they don't exude this air of basic competence.

Sargent argues that Bloomberg's re-election would be "extraordinarily helpful to Karl Rove's strategy for building an enduring Republican majority" because it would "send a powerful message to the rest of the country: Even the ultimate liberals -- that is, New Yorkers who are in sync with the Dems on just about everything -- don't trust them to run their own city."

This logic is dead backward: If New Yorkers are going to trust the Dems to run their city, the Dems have to start fielding candidates capable of winning that trust.

Fred Kaplan, a columnist for Slate, was The Boston Globe's New York bureau chief from 1995 to 2002.